Susan J. Demas: The solo hiker’s guide to not being an asshole during a plague

How you can try and ‘leave no trace’ of COVID-19

Susan J. Demas at Obstruction Point in Olympic National Park | Chuck Demas

Right now, I was supposed to be traipsing through Golden Canyon, but I obviously canceled my annual spring break hiking trip out West.

Susan J. Demas (mask sewn by Laina and Jan Stebbins)

It’s something I fantasize a lot about during Michigan blizzards (look, we all have rich interior lives) and marks the official start of hiking season for me when I drag my slightly achy 43-year-old joints up a desert peak and silently curse how many times I hit the treadmill instead of the StairMaster at the gym.

Forgoing a vacation naturally wasn’t a difficult decision during a plague that’s killed more than 500 in Michigan and 8,500 across the country (and not because Death Valley is closed anyway, like many national parks.) It might be tempting to picture its vast 5,270-square-mile expanse and wonder who you’d really be hurting on the trek to Wildrose Peak.

But it’s not safe for park staff to be working (several already tested positive for COVID-19) and it’s not safe for visitors to roam without emergency help on site (not to mention the potentially devastating impacts on fragile ecosystems that we saw when parks like Joshua Tree were open during the 2019 government shutdown.)

Most people are giving up far more than vacations right now, especially doctors, nurses and all medical professionals. At this point, most of us know someone who’s sick and probably someone who’s died. My family is healthy and I get to be with them (all day, every day), which is really an amazing gift.

So I’ll settle for walks on local trails, as thankfully, public health experts are encouraging us all to get some fresh air, even as most of the nation is under stay home orders to stop COVID-19’s spread.

Death Valley National Park | Susan J. Demas

Naturally, most of my neighbors have the same idea. If breaking news doesn’t allow me to lace up my trail runners until mid-afternoon (which happens pretty much every day, as pandemics aren’t great about allowing anyone to have a normal work schedule), the local bike path resembles the mall on (pre-internet) Black Friday.

It’s delightful to see so many people using our wonderful parks and trails. There’s nothing like hearing squealing children to make you smile. But unfortunately, too may people aren’t practicing proper social distancing (6 feet is a long way apart on your average sidewalk or trail) and I’ve only seen a handful of folks with masks.

I haven’t even ventured to some of my favorite state parks, as we’re not supposed to travel unless necessary. And the state keeps warning that those will be shuttered soon, too, unless people stop swarming them. In warmer climates, some folks keep jamming beaches, because apparently well-documented stories of spring breakers who mocked health advice and (predictably) came down with COVID-19 aren’t enough of a cautionary tale.

State parks are open, but poor social distancing could shut them down

Luckily, my life as a solo backpacker has prepared me well for these times. In the last decade, I’ve climbed more than 60 mountains and logged more than 3,500 solo miles on three continents — longer than any of the triple crown trails in America, the Appalachian to the East, Pacific Crest to the West or Continental Divide following the spine of peaks in between.

I’ve had my fair share of adventures with friends and family, but my absolute favorite thing in life is to get up before the sun’s up, pack up my dew-dampened tent and set out for my next destination in the chilled pre-dawn light when there’s not another soul for miles.

Hiking definitely has become far more fashionable in recent years. When I was waiting in line for my first backpacking permit in Yosemite in the summer of 2009, I listened to a jaded ranger lay down the law to a couple of cityslickers itching to get on the John Muir Trail, which boasts 210 miles of the most spectacular scenery in the High Sierra Mountains.  

“Nowadays, anyone can do the JMT if you can get three weeks off work, visit your local REI and have a copy of Elizabeth Wenk’s book,” the ranger said (that’s the 286-page bible for doing the JMT, something I’ve read more as a fantasy than for serious preparation.) 

“But that means a lot of impact on the trail — too much impact,” he continued, dismissively stroking his beard. “Every week, I have to go out and pick up folk’s trash. People don’t bury their human waste and bears get into it. I know you’re out for your own adventure and to have a good time. But your good time can’t come at the expense of anyone else’s, including the plants and animals that have a lot more right to be there than you do. You got that?”

Susan J. Demas: I thought I was done with journalism. I was wrong. Here’s why.

That’s the “leave no trace” mantra that hikers are supposed to follow. Think about the earth, native species and other people before yourself. Don’t travel off trail and disturb fragile flora. Camp only in designated areas. Be kind and say hello to others, but stay to the right on trails (in America) and yield to downhill hikers, horseback riders or skiers.

It’s something I’ve had to remind myself of time and time again at the end of a long day pounding the trail. Sometimes you don’t feel like trudging all the way to the designated stream to wash your dishes. Sometimes you don’t feel like packing out your fetid toilet paper. Sometimes you don’t feel like carefully skirting wildflower-strewn tundra with your hiking poles. Hiking can be exhausting physically, but especially mentally. Even basic tasks at the end of a long day can seem like Herculean feats.

But sometimes you have to confront just how lazy and selfish you’re inclined to be. And that’s the key to surviving coronavirus and ensuring others do, too.

The solitude I crave requires hiking at odd hours or off-season, often picking off-the-beaten-track trails. That’s harder to do when we’re all supposed to be sheltering in place. But trying not to infect others with a deadly disease is a hell of a motivator. So it’s worth taking some time to plan your recreation to be considerate to others — and to ensure that respites like our beautiful parks aren’t closed down.

We really are all in this together. And that means observing my basic rule of the trail: Don’t be an asshole.

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Susan J. Demas is a 19-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 3,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 60 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.